The Sunday Leader

Power To The Powerless In The Form Of Theatre

A talented group of 14 young Sinhalese and Tamils from Batticaloa and Polonnaruwa, educated an audience comprising of key government officials, leading NGO personnel and international audiences in Geneva and London, about grave social issues that Sri Lankan villagers experience in their lives.
Forum theatre was first introduced to Sri Lanka in 2005 by the British Council as a post-tsunami project. This form of theatre allows villagers to express their views on social issues such as child abuse, domestic violence, and ill-treatment towards women. The dramas are usually performed by people of a community to an audience of people from the same community, as a means of effectively communicating messages on fundamental social issues. The plot is scripted in a way that the worst possible outcome occurs. Once the play is performed, it is repeated; which is when the audience is invited to intervene by attempting to change the negative outcome of the play.

British Council initially promoted forum theatre to post-tsunami areas and eventually decided to promote the theatrical concept to war affected villages in the Eastern and Northern Central Provinces. This was the start of ‘Shakthi’, Sri Lanka’s first forum theatre group, which was conceptualised by British Council Sri Lanka in 2008.

Recognised for their ability to perform post-conflict social issues in an educative and entertaining manner, Shakthi was invited to perform in Geneva at the ‘ACT2’ Cultural Relations and Conflict Resolution Conference organised by British Council Switzerland. Having performed in Geneva on September 20, the group was also invited to perform in London on their return back to Sri Lanka, at an event organised by Pan Intercultural Arts, UK. It was the first time the members of Shakthi visited another country. It was also the first time they performed to an audience outside of their own community. Even though the performances were delivered in Sinhalese and in Tamil, there were no draw backs with regard to the international audiences. The interventions were productive and mind-opening, which allowed the performers to become more confident in their delivery.

Shakthi is proof of the effectiveness of forum theatre. The group initially performed to large interactive audiences of 600 from their communities in Batticaloa, and today, the young, talented individuals have blossomed into professional international performers within a short period of time.

Driven by the positive responses from Geneva and London, Shakthi premiered in Colombo on September 27 at British Council Colombo. Reflecting on the experience of performing their dramas to audiences outside of their community, Shani Niranjala (26) said, “Forum theatre is powerful when you perform it in front of your own community, but when we performed to audiences from Geneva, London and Colombo, we learned so much. The audience came up with different approaches to issues that the characters faced. It was very insightful. We love it when the audience intervenes and shares their ideas with us. This is the main reason why we perform.”

British Council’s primary objective of introducing forum theatre to post-conflict areas in Sri Lanka is to build awareness within communities about the social issues that require immediate change. Another objective is to create a highly skilled peer group that could move forward to become good community leaders who better-understand social issues and sustain trust among different ethnic groups. British High Commissioner to Sri Lanka and the Maldives, Dr. Peter Hayes congratulated British Council on the conceptualisation of Shakthi. He said, “The Shakthi group is a prime example of how youth from areas as remote as Batticaloa and Polonnaruwa, without any prior professional training, could overcome the difficulties of language barriers, different ethnic backgrounds and the reality of a war they had witnessed, and contribute towards creating positive social change and strengthening civil society. Sharing their experiences with their counterparts from around the world affords them a rare opportunity. I congratulate the British Council on making this a reality.”

Deputy Manager of Programmes at British Council, Sanjeevani Munasinghe is the driving force behind the forum theatre project. She happily said, “As a result of numerous successful trainer-training programmes, forum theatre has now been introduced to young adults in Anuradhapura, Polonnaruwa, Puttalam, and Kurunegala. We hope to create a Shakthi group in Jaffna and Vavuniya in the near future as well.” By introducing forum theatre to post-conflict areas in Sri Lanka, British Council has helped communities speak of serious social issues that were previously unspoken of. As the Shakthi tag line states, forum theatre has undoubtedly given ‘power to the powerless’, allowing the Tamil and Sinhalese communities to express their feelings and views together, through an open and interactive platform.

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